Discipline and learning objectives for which the resource was designed, the reasons for developing this resource, and its reliability as a source.
Discipline, Scope and Objectives
Antietam on the Web (AotW to its friends) is a reference website in the Humanities discipline of History, specifically United States History in the Civil War (ACW) period, 1861-1865, concentrating on the Battle of Antietam of September 17, 1862.
It has elements of a digital archive, peer community, media gallery, and online periodical, but it is foremost an organized repository of factual and interpreted historical information.
Our purpose is to provide the raw material needed to 'do history' on the Battle of Antietam and the Maryland Campaign of 1862: in one place and readily available online; gathering widely scattered historical resources.
K-12 note: Antietam is classified as one of the major battles of the ACW and is a topic in curricula and standards-of-learning for Grades 8 - 12 in most US States.
Begun in 1996, Antietam on the Web was not initially designed as a teaching resource, rather a personal research project; a means to catalog the battle's prominent participants and frame them in physical, personal, and political context. As the sophistication and reach of the material has increased, however, the site has become useful to many people.
The interconnected nature of the battle participants, and how they relate to events and their environment has driven the website's design. We exploit the power of hyperlinking and relational data to make the complexity of these relationships accessible to the reader in a way no printed source can.
Major technology improvements in 2003 - better servers, a relational database, and active software - and opening the site to contributing members have been keys to extensive yet manageable growth.
Although an experienced researcher, the author has no formal credentials in teaching or history, so has been careful to follow best practices of historical research. The material presented on the site is supported by reliable references, and recent footnoting procedures put these references at the reader's fingertips.
We present well-reasoned information that can be trusted to meet the needs of academic historians and professional educators. It is open for continuous review, and we are very active and responsive in repairing errors and incorporating new scholarship. Members advising and writing for the site now include professional historians and teachers at all levels, so we expect the quality of the site to continue to rise.
For more on the site see the "about" page.
image above: New York Zouaves, tintype, 1862; Library of Congress
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Looking back, what have we learned? What's next on the list for AotW?
The Web has matured considerably in the last decade, and our technical approach and delivery techniques have evolved to keep pace. But the software tools, site design, and 'user experience' all take a distant back seat to the historical content.
Some lesser lessons:
- Being responsible to thousands of visitors, we know the importance of presenting credible, well supported information. We don't expect scientific precision, but do aim high.
- Each time we begin to think we understand what 'really happened' in 1862, information new to us illuminates how little we really know.
- Soliciting active participation of a community of members was frightening, but, it turns out, a brilliant thing to do. We are indebted to them - and to dozens of other people around the world - for their artifacts and research.
- We expect that one day our database will be hacked and destroyed. Again. Rule One: daily backup.
- Many of the websites to which we link will move their pages or, sadly, disappear altogether within a year or two. We run a good automated link-checker often.
For a more thorough treatment of lessons-learned in online history, see Cohen & Rosenzweig's guide to Digital History (2005). We wish they'd published this ten years earlier.
What's Coming Next?
Building a website like Antietam on the Web is hugely rewarding, but there really can be no end to it.
We have project wish-lists of our own and encourage our users to send us ideas for improvement and additional study - we get a steady stream. We also add significant articles from our contributing members from time to time.
There are always at least a few biographies in the works. An ongoing focus at AotW, we post new people or expand existing records frequently.
Our current major project is new series of maps covering the period before and after the battle of Antietam. This will also drive more in-depth coverage of associated clashes at Harpers Ferry, the South Mountain Gaps, and Shepherdstown.
Long-term, we plan new exhibits and map-based studies on neglected facets of the Battle such as artillery deployments on the periphery of the field, Sharpsburg-area field hospitals, and military tactics.
We're also working on software and database structures for an interactive 1862 timeline, envisioning points attached to events, documents, places, and individuals in a graphical continuum.
image above: First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, F. Carpenter, 1864; US Senate
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Tips for Teaching
How might you want to use this learning resource? How has it been used by other teachers? What are the site's strengths as a reference resource?
Using the Site
An exciting entree to the Battle are our profiles of more than 1,000 participants, many with fascinating life stories and 'hooks' to the present; about half looking back at us from photographs. These are military officers, common soldiers, and civilians, all with consequence to the shape of events.
These people are cross-linked with maps, documentary evidence, military units, and other persons. Learning about their lives and the parts they played is one of the most direct ways for students to connect with America in 1862.
The site is noted for eyewitness documents: reports, letters, diaries and period photographs. AotW displays hundreds of these - valuable tools as much to teach how to do history as the history itself.
We also give pointers to the world of print and electronic references including a dense bibliography from our footnoting system. These are paths for derivative study and help educators and sophisticated history students validate the information and its context for themselves.
Teachers send students to AotW for battle facts or to 'interview' participants - often part of a scavenger hunt approach effective in engaging younger learners.
Those with limited previous knowledge of the battle review the hows, wheres, and whys with summary and interpretive essays and maps, and discover jumping-off points for further study. These are also used as assigned readings, followed by group discussion or analytical writing projects.
More senior students use the biographies as core to topical studies of the battle. Teachers also select candidates from AotW based on their curricular focus and desired classroom emphasis. Particularly interesting results are obtained when they choose from more obscure participants with non-traditional perspectives.
Advanced students and professionals have successfully used presentation materials from the site - particularly the interpretive maps - to support classroom teaching as well as independent research and publication.
Strengths of the Site
More than a cache of the 'stuff' of history, Antietam on the Web provides a hierarchical view of the material. From the home page students can get the big picture, drill down to find the specifics they need, and explore a specialty topic, person, or place of interest.
The site is organized around a half-dozen major topics like 'Exhibits', 'Participants' and 'Battle Maps", so visitors can easily find information. The site is attractive and uses clean text on plain backgrounds, at legible type sizes and in plain English. Only graphical elements which enhance function or convey useful information are used.
No additional software or plug-ins are required and most pages load very quickly.
A search feature and other 'help' resources - including a sister discussion group TalkAntietam - assist readers. Additional support is offered by email. The author doesn't do homework, but is otherwise happy to help, and usually responds within a day or so.
image above: Union charge - Burnside Bridge, Edwin Forbes, 1862[top of page]
Learning Materials Available
Range of materials on the site.
The key resources on the site are organized in sections for ...
An Overview of the battle and the Maryland Campaign;
The Participants: individuals and military units present at Sharpsburg;
Articles and Exhibits - original articles and primary documents about the Battle;
A series of detailed Campaign and Battle Maps for the events of that September;
All of the commanders' Reports as published in the Army's Official Records;
A Gallery of images and artifacts of Sharpsburg; and
Sources for more about Antietam and the War.
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What student groups can use the site? How do different groups benefit from this resource?
Range of Students Supported
A very broad range of learners are making use of this site. The largest group are college undergrads and high school students in structured history programs.
Constituents also include educators, graduate and post-grad scholars, historians, and other adult learners - a group including genealogists, military personnel, journalists, and a variety of ACW 'hobbyists'.
We do not tailor the content to readers below Grade 8 (US), but believe it is readily comprehensible to most students at or above that level.
Typical Activities by Skill Level
Entry level students are looking for 'fun facts', pictures of the generals, and answers to teacher worksheets. High school and college visitors for the broader picture with backing detail, and are likely to refer to AotW's maps and exhibits, and primary resource material to support topical theses.
Educators, historians, and the other adult readers are more likely to have come to us from an internet search engine, and though they often explore beyond the item that attracted them, are usually 'cherry-picking' specific information.
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